View Full Version : NYTimes Article: My M.A., a Source of Pride and Regret

07 July 2009, 10:18 PM
NYTimes Article: My M.A., a Source of Pride and Regret ( (

I ran across this article and blogged about it here (, since I think it's an issue relevant to many students. Click image or click here ( to be taken to this article on pursuing a Master's Degree (in various fields). Most of the opinions expressed are pretty cynical, and are a word to the wise. Take this with a grain of salt - and draw your own conclusions.

For those of you in the Fine Arts, it can be sometimes difficult to discern the differences between getting an M.A. (Masters of Art) vs. an M.F.A. (a Masters of Fine Arts). An M.A. really gets you very little in the way of job marketability - and will neither allow you to teach at the public high school or public or private college level. An M.A. might be useful for allowing you to teach at the private high school level, but I have no firsthand experience of this. An M.F.A., on the other hand, will qualify you to teach at the public or private college level (though of course there is no guarantee - teaching positions are always highly competitive, and full time employment can take years to acquire). It is a much more worthwhile degree if you plan to pursue, at any point in your life, college level teaching. Furthermore, an M.F.A. typically requires only 15 or so more credits than an M.A., and therefore gets you far more "bang for your buck".

The conventional wisdom has always been that those who earn higher degrees and graduate degrees earn more over the course of their lifetimes. One must factor in how much debt they can take on, vs. how much they expect to earn. Whether or not to pursue a graduate degree involves many factors and is, at bottom, a matter of personal choice.

For myself, I was fortunate not to have had to take on a load of graduate student debt - but that was because I consciously chose to work while attending graduate school on a part-time basis, and therefore do not have debt payments looming large over me every month. While a long road (4 years for an M.F.A., as opposed to the two it would have taken on a full-time basis) in these economic times I feel that the harder choice has paid off.

07 July 2009, 06:28 AM
I'm reasonably certain that, from a strictly financial perspective, neither an MA or MFA makes sense for an animator, even if they are interested in teaching. All the animation programs I've looked at hired teachers based on professional experience, not academia.

07 July 2009, 06:33 AM
Meloncov, you're right in that for the majority who already have an undergraduate degree with a focus on animation, an MFA won't help them much simply by virtue of having an extra degree. However, the value of an MFA might be greater for someone who has not studied animation at the undergraduate level. I had a community college student who already had a prior undergraduate degree - she wanted to study animation, but felt collecting another BFA wouldn't be worthwhile - so I recommended that she look into a reputable MFA program in California for animation. She ultimately decided to attend and seems to really like it there, since they cover some of the topics which she had missed previously. In the process, she will pick up an MFA (useful for teaching anything in art, not specifically animation) and also cover the topics she missed from her prior BFA.

To be sure, I know of only a few graduate programs with a focus on animation that I would consider recommending (and that's on an anecdotal basis).

Mainly, this post was written for a broader arts audience - I wasn't specifically thinking of animators when I wrote it. And the article is far from addressing only the arts - it's intended for a wider audience.

07 July 2009, 06:38 AM
It seems to me a student in that situation would be better off with a proffesional program; DAVE school, Gnomon, AnimationMentor, or the like. My understanding of MFA programs is that they tend to be light on technical instruction, tending to focus more on conceptual issues. Conceptual focus is all fine and good, of course, but it pretty useless without technical skills to back it.

Of course, this may not be true of all schools.

07 July 2009, 06:45 AM
It depends on the individual student, and the particular school. :) I'm well aware of the technical schools - and always bring up the pros and cons of such schools to my students. In this particular (anecdotal) instance, the student was interested in refining both her traditional 2D skills as well as picking up skills in animation. Therefore, Gnomon wasn't the best fit for her, since it does not focus heavily on traditional skills. Nor is it necessarily the place to focus specifically on animation, since they have always advertised themselves as focused on a generalist's skillset. This is backed up by people I've known to attend the school.

I won't name the school my former student chose since I don't wish to appear to endorse any particular school. But it did have an MFA program for animation in which she could also broaden her traditional toolset.

As for Animation Mentor, it can be the wrong program if someone needs hands on guidance and feedback from peers in person. There are simply pros and cons to every program.

I also always warn my students about the pitfalls of conceptual / non-skill based schools, as I'm painfully aware that the vast majority of American universities have MFA programs that are conceptually based. (These are not bad in and of themselves, necessarily, but are certainly wrong for a student interested in CG. I try to educate my students about the differences between types of schools - and then encourage them to do their own research, since choosing a school is a highly personal choice, based on a combination of factors).

Not to mention the fact that any 'technical' schools, such as the ones that you mention, will necessarily specialize in the area in which a particular student is interested - even within the realm of 3D. For example, VFS seems to be known for modeling, Gnomon for a generalist skill set, etc. etc. I always recommend that my students research various options - from the technical schools to the private art schools, to the public art school programs - not everyone can afford private tuition. She chose her school based on her individual parameters - knowing well that every school has its shortcomings, and that no school can provide everyone with everything that they need.

It's quite a tough thing in general to choose the right school, mainly because of the costs involved. That's mainly the reason I post these articles here as food for thought regarding where people might think about putting their money with regard to their education.

It's not meant at all to be didactic. :) It's basically, food for thought in a general sense.

07 July 2009, 03:57 PM
Rebeccak, I sent you a private message asking for your advice. Thanks for your great posts on schools

07 July 2009, 09:43 PM

I'm curious what MFA animation schools you know of. In my research I've found the vast majority of them to be a waste of time and money. Sadly the skills one really needs to get an industry job is taught better at the BFA level than the MFA.

An MFA is useful only for the independent animator working in more unusual mediums, or for creating one's own projects with a very solid background in both the technical and artistic side already.

You may need an MFA to teach at the university level, but too many of those with qualified MFA degrees seriously lack the technical or artistic competence to teach their area.

07 July 2009, 01:21 AM
Not all students want to work in a professional capacity. Government and educational organisations are really only impressed by qualifications. Quite the reverse of the production world. Your start salary will depend greatly on how many letters you have behind your name. Also there are students who use these studies as a stepping stone to move onto other things: R&D, funding etc. There are people finding their way back into the education system who have no practical experience which I hate, but there you have it. You will find that in almost all educational systems except for dedicated courses, which are veeeery expensive :)

07 July 2009, 04:28 AM
taxguy, I received and replied to your email. Thanks!

I'm curious what MFA animation schools you know of. In my research I've found the vast majority of them to be a waste of time and money. Sadly the skills one really needs to get an industry job is taught better at the BFA level than the MFA.

An MFA is useful only for the independent animator working in more unusual mediums, or for creating one's own projects with a very solid background in both the technical and artistic side already.

You may need an MFA to teach at the university level, but too many of those with qualified MFA degrees seriously lack the technical or artistic competence to teach their area.forsakendreams, one of the few programs I know of to have an MFA related to Animation is AAU in SF. This is not to say that I endorse the school - as with any school, I think AAU has its problems and deficiencies (which I learn about anecdotally and secondhand).

My former student chose AAU, but I had talked to her about all of the other available options. She made her choice independently, as she had to do, because I cannot possibly know all of the mitigating circumstances of her life. Closeness to family, financial burden, the waxing and waning reputation of any school and its students, and proximity to the industry all have to factor in, and that is a highly personal choice. I ALWAYS recommend that someone do a lot of research (including visiting) a school before they decide to plop down $150,000 in search of their pipe(line) dream.

What people don't think about is the fact that schools' reputations change over time - I had a student whose parents were dead set on sending their child to Cal Arts for animation because they thought Cal Arts had the best reputation for character animation. Which it did - when 2D animation was king. So I really think one has to base their opinions of a school on CURRENT students who attend and its CURRENT reputation for their particular program.

Also, the primary factor in whether or not you succeed in a school is YOU. A good student will do well wherever they go. A poor student simply won't. The best students will be smart about the schools they choose, think through their finances carefully and realistically, make an educated choice, and then work their ass off in school so they can beat the millions of others who want the same things they do.

07 July 2009, 07:26 AM

I am planning to do my masters in digital animation from Teesside UK. I feel that pursuing further studies is a major decision to take. I have been working for three and half years as a graphic artist and an editor and I wish to learn more about animation, hence the decision.

In India the quality of animation Since the MA course is only for one year (I cannot afford to waste fours years of my life to get a bachelors in animation as already have a bachelors in commerce) and is cheaper, i plan to join it.

As far as my work experience goes.. I have been a project manager for two years and have taken several interviews of prospective employees. One thing I have noticed is people do have several degrees but no experience. But one should not get disheartened because of the experience factor. Everybody starts somewhere!!! What employers look for is the willingness to learn and adapt to new things. Nowadays you have to be a ''jack of all arts and master of some".

Earlier, the general idea was ''specialisation is the key to development''. I feel prospective employees should be generalists who are versatile and can grasp any kind of work. This does not mean specialisation is bad. Being only good at one thing can be harmful. Why would a company hire a person with only one skillset? especially during bad economic times.

An educational degree does help but as i said dont totally depend on what has been taught to you in school or college. You need to be open to new ideas and methods.

Keep learning and best of luck!!!

07 July 2009, 01:57 AM
I can see why a person would be cynical about spending the time and money on an MA since it's not a terminal degree, but an MFA is worth the effort if you have a BFA in another field and want to pursue 3D. I'm very glad I took the time to get an MFA when I decided to get into 3D. Because I have an MFA I have been able to teach as well as do production work.

I had a BFA in environmental design, did some fashion design work, then taught myself web design and did that freelance for a while before I got interested in 3D animation. I had been out of college for more than 10 years and decided that if I was going to take courses in 3D aniamtion I might as well get an MFA if I could. At the time I lived by a state university that had a MFA in Computer Arts which focussed on 3D. Going to a state university made it possible to get an MFA at a very reasonable price. I also taught classes as a graduate teaching assitant during my last three semesters which I got paid for as well and getting some tuition reimbursement, so that helped lower the cost significantly.

It's true that I had to teach myself a lot of the technical aspects of 3D, but there's so much technical information available in books and online that I didn't find that to be a huge problem. In this field you have to constantly teach yourself new things, so being able to find the information you need and put it to use is an important skill. I found the art direction I got from my professors to be extremely valuable. They really helped me think about camera moves and staging a scene. And it was good to be pushed to think on a conceptual level.

When I moved up to the NYC area to do production work, having an MFA made it possible for me to teach at the college level while I was freelancing. I really enjoy teaching, and teaching a couple of classes every semester helped balance the money when I was in between freelance gigs. I stopped teaching for a while after I got a staff position, but I'm actually going back to teaching a class in the fall even though I have a full-time production job.

So, my point is that an MFA does have it's advantages. The main advantage is that it opens up the possibility of teaching at the college level. I've known several people that have been in the industry for years who wanted to leave production work and teach, but couldn't because they didn't have an MFA.

There are a lot of MFA programs that focus on 3D, but most of them aren't called MFA in 3D animation. Often times they are called MFA in Computer Art or MFA in Digital Arts. So when people research MFA programs in 3D animation they should make sure they do searches for things that might be related to 3D animation. There are also quite a few state universities that have MFA programs related to 3D and although these may not be as well known as some of the private schools, they can offer a lower cost alternative.

The decision to go back to school is a big one that means dedicating time and money to the career you want to pursue. The advantages and disadvantages of getting an MFA or getting technical training from a school like Gnomon have to be thought about carefully and will be different for everyone.

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